A.S. Neill & Summerhill School
January 5, 2010
My Base
January 21, 2010

Nethack: 9 Life Lessons

Steve Pavlina has just made an excellent case for why BDSM is about personal development. So now I’m going to explain why the free, open-source game Nethack has been a help for me in my quest to Remap my Reality* 🙂

*Note to readers: At the time I wrote this, Remap Your Reality was the name of my blog. I wanted to focus on Philosophy of Knowledge type material, but that turned out too restrictive a niche for me.

1. Love is what makes genius

Nethack is a game that I consider to be a true work of genius. It’s funny, playful, exciting, balanced, rich, incredibly complex, and stimulating for pretty much any player and any skill level. I think it is the deepest computer game I’ve ever played – it stands a level above most others. How did this happen? If this were the work of one person we could write them off as a freak genius, created by nature just to outshine us pathetic mortals. But Nethack was created by a thirty-person team.

I think Nethack got to where it was because it was created with love.

I don’t think you need to work for free, by the way (the Nethack team did), to access the creativity that comes with loving what you do. I do think, however, that you need to be free of scarcity-based fears. It takes some nerve to stay peaceful enough to love when you don’t know where your rent is coming from. If you haven’t succeeded in breaking your social programming to see money in a non-threatening way (I’m still on it), therefore, then working for free does the job.

2. Be brave, not foolish

Nethack is a dangerous game, because when you die, you can’t redo your mistake, you have to create a new character and start over. You will get to love your character, feel happy with the things you’ve accomplished and the power you have built for yourself, and maybe you’re even attached to the pet you have, your trusty monster-murdering companion. Then BAM, you do something stupid or are even wronged by a sheer freak of statistics, and you die. You can’t go back. You’re dead.

In life as in Nethack, death isn’t final but it sure is annoying. Risk management is such a big issue. Is it really going to help you to take a risk on death just to get slightly better armor? Keep your priorities in mind, people.

In life, perhaps you’ll want to cover your risks by going after extra money. But again, priorities. You have your own meaning of life; mine is to love. Will extra armor (money) bring me more ability to love? Or could I love more by not being obsessed by small imperfections in my armor?

(At this moment, more money does mean more ability to love for me. But it’s good to remind myself to love now and not wait for perfection).

Unlike Nethack, cowardice is often more of a problem in life than excess bravado. However, in both worlds you will need to learn to balance things. Act in spite of your fear, but don’t become unconscious of it.

3. The present moment is more important than the goal

How many times will we have to read this before we start living it? In Nethack, I often became VERY frustrated when my character died. After 20 hours of playing just to get killed by a rock falling on my head or something equally stupid, I actually had to go into a period of mourning before starting a new game. I was shocked – I didn’t feel like my character would ever die. But it did.

What’s more, I often lost the enjoyment of the game by trying too hard to win. I would overstretch myself, playing for more time than was healthy using repetitive and boring strategies. Even if I had won, I think my win would have been rather hollow. However, I also noticed the more I fought to win rather than fighting for the fun of it, the more I tended to die stupidly.

Over time I was forced by repeated emotional battering to get more Zen about it and focused on ENJOYING the game in the present moment – the only moment there is.

Are you fighting so hard to survive that you’re killing yourself?

4. Play the cards that you are dealt

Nethack is a game based on chance. Sometimes you’re lucky in the equipment and adversaries that get sent your way, sometimes you’re not.

I think it’s immature to give up if you’re dealt a bad hand, though. It’s not over till it’s over, and so long as you know how to adapt you can make it through almost any difficulty. Some challenges are actually blessings in disguise, in fact. By being forced to use your ingenuity to overcome an obstacle, you will discover things you’ll have never discovered by having it easy.

5. Don’t take risky decisions when you’re emotional

When I’m playing Nethack for a long time and get frustrated, bored, angry, or tired, then maybe it’s time to leave it for a while. I know that when I’m not thinking clearly I can do stupid things. When these things have far-reaching consequences, then you need to leave the decisions till a better time.

6. An addiction is a healthy practise used to run away from something

In my life, I have abused masturbation, sleep, food, alcohol, internet and Nethack.

I don’t feel the need to give up any of these things. But when I’m taking any of them to an extreme, it’s time to examine my life. I find that I use these things to try and avoid something I don’t want to face.

Well that thing is still there, and maybe your life needs changes – maybe it needs drastic changes. It wasn’t easy for me, but I finally uprooted the problem whose symptoms were addictions such as Nethack. Though it was uncomfortable, this required me to give up my addictions for long enough to recognise my problem.

Nowadays I might sit down and spend five or ten minutes to thoughtfully play through a single level of Nethack, trying to do everything well and savouring the patterns which chance plays out, the special challenges I go through, and the ingenious strategies I come up with to beat them. I remember that the goal is not the end, but that enjoying the game is. I also remember that I am here, now, that I have my goals and desires, and that life is hard, but it can also be very rewarding. I don’t feel the need to run from those facts any more. I take life one level at a time 🙂

7. I like to win

I think we all have a warrior side. I’d like to think of myself as a spiritual person, according to my own idea of spirituality. So am I doing something wrong by playing out a fantasy where I kill hundreds of bloodthirsty monsters? I don’t know, but for now I don’t think so. I think the lower chakras are just as divine as the higher ones, and there is a place for everything, including battle. And let’s face it, victory feels good.

If I lower my vibration by doing this I trust I will realise, in time. For now, I am being “spiritual” by not fighting my dark side (if it is my dark side), and not caring to be consistent with a rigid identity.

8. The appearance is not what matters

Nethack isn’t a timeless classic (perhaps the only computer game that can be called timeless) because of graphics. I prefer to play with a very simple display that represents me as an “@” symbol and different monsters with different letters of the alphabet.

I think by not having to win an arms race with other game designers for the title of world’s flashiest game, Nethack has had the chance to go deeper.

In my own blog, I go for content over appearance. For now (and I’m not saying that it will always be like that) the presentation is neat, but strictly functional. I do hear from time to time that I have touched people’s lives.

Million-dollar graphics don’t do that.

9. You learn from everything

Maybe some things are better teachers than others, but anything you put your soul into will help you grow. That’s what I think.

What do you think?

Nethack: it’s free, it’s awesome, it’s vintage, and it works on any operating system you an imagine.

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1 Comment

  1. Jack says:


    I just ascended a Valkyrie today in NetHack 3.4.3 and came across your site while searching around for places I could announce my victory to the world. Your site will the first to receive the news, so here I go:
    I ascended with a score of 7,950,926 points! I took 180,575 turns… not exactly a speed ascension, eh? Ascended with my guardian Angel of Odin and 3 giant beetles & a soldier ant that I tamed with a magic harp after a priest of Moloch summoned them against me (ha, ha! You just gave me a swarm of pets there!)

    I wanted to say that your article is quite fascinating – it’s amazing how much this game can inspire a person. Yes, NetHack has taught us all some valuable lessons that we can apply to real life. You’re right, we should play a game like NetHack to enjoy the moment of playing it, rather than just grasping for an ascension. I think I did a mixture of both in this most recent game. I spent a lot more time fussing over details than was necessary, but enjoyed it nonetheless. The next time I start up this timeless classic, I’ll reread your article before embarking on my quest to remind myself why we play a game like this in the first place.

    Happy Hacking,

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